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From books to games, anyone? February 25, 2011

Posted by Cesar in gaming me, thinking me.
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The other day I was thinking about this: what electronic games came straight from books? It doesn’t count if the game is just vaguely inspired by a book setting, like the Rainbow Six series, or if the game is based in a movie which is based in a book (anyone thinking Lord of the Rings?). Ah! And comic books / graphics novels don’t count either.

Mind you, I never googled for results either (although I did research the games I found). So instead I posed the question to many of my friends, including several game designers, and I was surprised to find out that the answers never come easy. It is hard to list games that fit the criteria. Many of the mentioned ones are old school games, like the text-based Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Hobbit. Modern games are much harder to find. It seems like books now get movie versions before the games industry takes a stab at it. However, it is still possible to find some, like the successful The Witcher.

Pinpointing the reason for this small number of direct translations from books to games is very hard. It seems like it was easier 20 years ago, but that might just be because the games were so much simpler: a single programmer fan could be enough to spawn a text adventure back then. But even that is not obvious, the numbers I got in my survey are too small for any conclusive analysis.

Below are the titles I got, I still can’t believe I found so few. If you remember any more, disagree with one or if you simply have a theory on the subject, let me know in the comments!

See you space cowboys…

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Pursuit of innovation February 1, 2011

Posted by Cesar in thinking me, working me.
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As usual Mathew Sakey had an interesting column last month . He writes about innovation in games and analyzes the concept of innovation itself, making a split between the conservative innovation we tend to see in most AAA games and the wild innovation we so rarely have a chance to appreciate.

The idea made me look at the industry as a whole and try to place the development team in that system. Although passion-driven, the games industry is still an industry, and as such it has a very strong financial component we cannot ignore.

It is true that developers now have way more efficient means to reach the market without a publisher, a development studio or even a team. Indie developers can publish games on Steam, Apple Store, XBox Live Arcade and others, all very valid options to share game experiences with the world.

But in the end, the vast majority of the content players will enjoy comes from professional developers plugged into the games industry production chain, which includes development studios, first party publishers, third-party publishers… you know the drill.

So when we look at innovation in indie games, it is fair to expect anything. There are no strong strings tying indie developers to market fluctuation, advertising, sales, development time. On the other hand, when a development studio works on a project for a publisher, all these factors come into play and true innovation becomes a greater challenge for the team.

And this is what I want to talk about. The fact that the standard game production chain involves so many factors other than gameplay and immersion does not mean innovation is not an option. Instead, it means the development team needs to evolve and adapt in order to be truly creative. While we can’t deny the industry wants profit, it is also true that profit can come from innovation. It is up to everyone involved to come up with a new idea and sell it convincingly.

If it wasn’t for this creative effort, we wouldn’t see some amazing games like ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, Indigo Prophecy, the Katamari series, Heavy Rain and many others. I know, I know, these represent an extremely small fraction of all games produced since, say, ICO was released. And the industry could use a bit more. But these games and studios prove my point: it is possible.

It is certainly a factor that the industry itself many times presses developers against innovation, but we cannot ignore the fact that there’s still some wiggle room for those willing to adventure in less known territory. If you have a good idea, try it. Sell it right. If it doesn’t sell, maybe you need to explore innovation in another direction that suits the company better. No developer should simply drop an idea and blame the world. Look at the picture above: we can’t control what happens inside the pipeline. But someone has to drop the ideas at one end to see what will come out on the other side.

See you space cowboys…

The Graveyard Book and the meaning of life October 6, 2010

Posted by Cesar in living me, thinking me.
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“He looks like nobody but himself,” said Mrs.Owens, firmly. “He looks like nobody.”
“Then Nobody it is,” said Silas. “Nobody Owens.”
It was then that, as if responding to the name, the child opened its eyes wide in wakefulness. It stared around it, taking in the faces of the dead, and the mist, and the moon. Then it looked at Silas. Its gaze did not flinch. It looked grave.
“And what kind of a name is Nobody?” asked Mother Slaughter, scandalized.
“His name. And a good name,” Silas told her. “It will help to keep him safe.”

The quote above is from “The Graveyard Book“, from Neil Gaiman. The other day I was talking to my friend Wallace and I remembered I never wrote about one of my greatest passions: literature. And my first post on the subject couldn’t be about any other author: in my mind Neil Gaiman is one of the greatest writers of our generation. His fantasy books tell of amazing tales. Adult, deep, thoughtful fairy tales, and they are all great.

Neil Gaiman got famous for writing the Sandman graphic novels, and I love all of them, but after he started focusing on books he went from great to remarkable. I think we’ll talk about his books as classics if you give it a couple of decades. If you never read one of his books, you might have seen one or two movies. Stardust and Coraline were adaptations of his work (Stardust was alright, Coraline was awesome, but I digress).

Back to the matter at hand, I wanted to talk about literature and about Neil Gaiman, so I decided to make a review of his latest literary work: The Graveyard Book.  The book was written as a children book but, just like Coraline, adults who didn’t read it don’t know what they are missing. Neil Gaiman’s style is so interesting, his writing so close to poetry, his stories so full of meaning, that they transcend age constraints.

The Graveyard Book tells the story of Nobody Owens (you can call him Bod), a living kid raised by the dead in a graveyard. I won’t give away any spoilers. Zero. But Bod’s life has it all: his personal troubles, his interaction with the living and the dead, the secrets of graveyards and ghosts, a greater plot of good vs. evil, the metaphorical search for the meaning of life.

All characters are very tangible. You can’t help but feel the fear of Bod, the apprehension of his ghostly mother Mrs. Owens,  the strong conviction of Silas. As the story flows, the reader is constantly invited to be amazed, to fear, to smile and to laugh. The atmosphere of the book is always right and the borderline poetic narrative always keeps the fairy tale feeling alive. The humor is always witty and natural, as are the more scary moments and the epic passages.

Bod said, ‘I want to see life. I want to hold it in my hands. I want to leave a footprint on the sand of a desert island. I want to play football with people. I want,’ he said, and then he paused and he thought. ‘I want everything.’

To me the best way to read Neil Gaiman is to let yourself get completely immersed into the story, but to also see it as a quest for wisdom. Like long parables, all his books hold an invitation for thought and The Graveyard Book is no different.

The only flaw of the book is one that taints all great literary efforts: the book is too short, I wish we could follow Bod for a few more adventures. I was already nostalgic when I finished reading the last sentence. But then again, that’s one of the beauties of it, thinking about what was never written.

If you read this one and like it, try the Gaiman classics: Good Omens (simply hilarious, written together with Terry Pratchett) and American Gods. You won’t regret it.

See you space cowboys…

Export ready brazilian metal August 20, 2010

Posted by Cesar in living me, thinking me.
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Planet Hemp, Raimundos and everything with the Cavalera brothers

I made some great friends here in St. John’s and, listening to their music, I went back to a style I thought was only part of my old music background, long gone from the mp3 player (jeez, mp3 players didn’t even exist back then) and not planning an encore. In other words, to make it simple, I have been listening to Hardcore and Thrash Metal a lot and I blame Willis and Coote for that. Yes, don’t deny it, it is your fault. Hehehe…

Anyway, while listening to Sepultura and No Ca$h, I started thinking about Brazilian Rock and derivatives. When you want to show a foreigner Brazilian music, it is very obvious to show Samba, Bossa Nova, Pagode, Forró. But Rock, Punk, Metal are not Brazilian rhythms. And while we do have good bands, if the only thing that makes them Brazilian are the lyrics, there’s nothing to show, really. Be that Rita Lee, Titãs, Cassia Eller or Garotos Podres, unless you get the lyrics they are like many others who sing in English, German, Japanese or whatever.

So I was searching for Brazilian Metal or Hardcore with a Brazilian melody, and not just lyrics. After all, this is something anyone can recognize as being different, as being from the land of Samba.

My first take on it was with Sepultura and Soulfly. Some of their work has a very tribal, native Brazilian or Samba-like sound, and that can be heard from the percussion to the use of the berimbau. You can’t listen to Attitude, Roots Bloody Roots, Tribe, Umbabarauma, and not notice the different rhythms.

I kept digging and stumbled onto Planet Hemp. True, they have a mild Metal influence and also draw inspiration from Hip Hop and Samba. But the mix is very Brazilian as well, which is interesting considering the heavy emphasis they put on the lyrics.

But I was not satisfied and continued exercising my music muscle (which reminds me of an old Virgin game, how many band references can you find here?) looking for Brazil sounding Rock. And much to my surprise I realized Raimundos is a very good example of it. While their music is not similar to Samba or tribal sounds, it has a very regional inspiration from the Northeast of Brazil and takes a lot from Forró. Everything from the percussion to the riffs and the vocals match the culture of the place. In a funny and dirty way, true, but it does.

Making this research (and populating my playlist!) was and is a very interesting experience, I’m curious to find out what Willis and Coote think of these bands. Anyway, it made me think about something obvious we sometimes forget: melody travels a lot easier than words, everyone understands music. Brazil has a strong musical culture, strong enough to break the boundaries of Samba and Bossa Nova and reach many other, seemingly unlikely, genres.

Don’t get me wrong, I love it when people ask me about Samba and Pelé. But it is great to hear people talk with admiration about Sepultura and Bob Burnquist.

See you space cowboys…

Edward Burtynsky and manufactured landscapes: don’t say I didn’t talk about games August 12, 2010

Posted by Cesar in thinking me.
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First and foremost, the most urgent: if you are near St. John’s, run to The Rooms and see Burtynsky’s photography exibition. It is fenomenal and will end August 15th. I’m serious, don’t miss it.

Yesterday I was there with Mary’s parents, they came to visit us here in St. John’s. I was not aware of the exhibit at all and, when I saw it, my jaw dropped. His work is amazing.

So after the initial impact, I started really contemplating the pictures and couldn’t stop looking. I got home, googled Burtynsky and my respect for him grew even more. Edward Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer who, at some point, decided to dedicate his career and I dare say his life to what he calls manufactured landscapes: landscapes that display in dramatic fashion the impact of mankind and heavy industrialization on our planet.

The most amazing thing about his work is that the images are gorgeous, unbelievably beautiful, but they portray very sad, disturbing, horrifying sceneries we conceived ourselves. These mixed feelings are in all of his work. And the photographs are so big, taken with such wide lenses, so crisp, that every one of them has multiple small details; nuances that make you think more and more.

But this is obviously more than a simple work of art. It is a meaningful way to remind people of what we are doing to our planet. And if you know me, you know I’m not much of a green talker. But this guy really reached me, that’s how powerful his work is. His pictures are used by worldchanging.com and others to impact everyone the same way they impacted me, and inspire mankind to start thinking (and acting!) about sustainability. It sure is inspiring.

For his work, in 2005 Burtynsky won the TED Prize. There are many TED talks with him (like this one) and, afaik, they are all worth watching.

I went to his website and put some of my favorites here on the blog. Not because they are hard to find, but just so I can look at them and remember them often.

Now I want to suggest you click this link to the very first picture of the gallery so you can see it full size. Done it? Now tell me: is the world of Fallout 3 that far away? Don’t those pictures remind you of the Wasteland and Megaton?

Did you notice? I told you I would talk about games.

See you space cowboys…

Pointing interaction March 31, 2010

Posted by Cesar in thinking me.
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Once again interaction is the subject of the blog. I suspect I mentioned some of this stuff before, when talking about immersion, but it’s been on my mind lately so I thought I could share.

What I have been rummaging is how important pointing is in human communication. It might just be the most important gesture we use when trying to express something. We point our fingers at people when we refer to them, at objects to draw attention, at streets and buildings to give directions and even at ourselves to indicate personal feelings or achievements.

But we don’t stop there. If you think of pointing in an ample way, as indicating a position in space, pointing is also the most natural drawing strategy we have. We sketch on the sand and paint with our fingers. And if we need more precision, we create tools to do the job. Pens, pencils, compasses, rulers, all of them tools to make pointing more precise. Of course the goal is to generate a visual representation of something, but we always want to point on the process.

Pointing can also be very aggressive too: guns are pointed at the target before the shot, swords pointed at the heart to threaten. The list could go on and on.

In computers we tried not to point too much and at the beginning we just moved cursors up and down with our arrow keys (on a second thought, isn’t that pointing too?). But after some skepticism, the whole world succumbed to the mouse, invented at the Stanford Research Institute and popularized by Apple in 1984 with the Macintosh. The mouse has always been recognized as a pointing device and during the years it increased enormously in precision and functionality.

But using the mouse is not as natural as using our hands. Or pencils. So there goes humanity again developing tablet pens and displays, touch screens and what not. Maybe by now, if you remember I am a gamer, you can see where I am going. No? What if I say a few weeks ago I gave up fighting and got an iPhone?

Yes, there we go again to input methods and interaction in video games.

Touch screens are not new and neither are stylus pens. However, when touch devices became more popular and portable, the stylus became a hassle. Storing the pen inside the device, like it happens for example with the Nintendo DS, is a valid option. But when the device becomes truly portable and is used everywhere, like in a smart phone, it doesn’t work so well. Why? Because getting it out of the device to answer a call is very annoying. And because it is easy to lose.

Before I got the iPhone, I had an LG Dare. It is a decent phone, with a touchscreen and a stylus that I could attach to it. But every time I got a call, I would leave the stylus where it was and use my fingers. My first instinct was to actually use my fingers all the time, except that in the LG Dare you sometimes can’t do s*** without the stylus.

The iPhone is different. It was designed to be used with the fingers, it doesn’t even have a stylus. I was very impressed at how this apparently small change made such a big difference. Everything feels more natural.

And when I thought of that, I immediately remembered my talk about video game immersion and the division between transparent and engaging controls. Using the touchscreen with the fingers is very transparent.

Now let’s thing again about the new control technologies coming out for consoles this year, joining the Wii in the innovative input group. Project Natal is definitely the most transparent of them hands down. Nothing feels as natural and unobtrusive as moving our own bodies. However, does it offer a good pointing device? Probably not as good as Playstation Move (or Wii MotionPlus for that matter).

And therein, as the bard would tell us, lies the rub (this reminds me of Inside Man. Great movie). There’s a lot of expectation associated to Natal. but we don’t know exactly what to expect yet.  If they succeed at making with image recognition a top-notch pointing system, there’s no discussion and similar systems will be the future of gaming. However, I’m not sure that will hold. Just like touch screens lose precision when used with fingers, pointing will lose precision without a device manufactured exclusively with that purpose.

So I guess what I am trying to put into perspective is the balance between transparency and pointing precision. The difference in this balance is most likely going to dictate the games that come out for each device. And the question is: given the importance of pointing and of transparency, which one do you prefer? My answer is always the same: just to be on the safe side, I’ll probably choose both and find out playing.

See you space cowboys…

Every day the same dream January 23, 2010

Posted by Cesar in living me, thinking me, working me.
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Every day the same dream is an amazing game. If you’ve heard about it before, continue reading. Otherwise, I recommend you play first; it is very short, you’ll finish in minutes.

I found out about this deep and disturbing game at Tap-Repeatedly and was very… surprised at how the experience moved me. Every day is in all technical aspects extremely simple. That is a compliment and goes to show how games are unquestionably an art form. Even stripped from all graphical advances, realistic AI and complex controls, playing it is a touching and immersive experience (here I go talking about immersion again). I had had such feelings before watching short movies, never playing games.

Playing Every day made me think of two movies: Modern Times, by Charlie Chaplin, and Groundhog Day. There’s a tad of both in this game.

Modern times has a direct relation to Every day: Chaplin’s movie is also a critic to the massification of modern life.

In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, lives the same day over and over again, oblivious as to why that’s happening to him. The repetition acts as a metaphor to the stagnation caused by the main character’s life style. In a scene in the bowling alley, Phil asks two locals, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?” One guy replies, “That about sums it up for me.” That right there explains the connection. The magic power that makes Phil live the same day every day only brings to the surface the drama both the locals in the movie and the character in Every Day the Same Dream experience by simply living their lives.

In both movie and game, the break from the repetition that plagues existence comes from self-improvement. They represent a search for enlightenment and offer a valuable lesson.

If you still haven’t played the game, do it now. And go rent Groundhog Day. You won’t regret it.

See you space cowboys…

Immersion: other takes on the subject January 10, 2010

Posted by Cesar in thinking me.
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diving

That’s what happens when you don’t have time during the week. Many posts at once. Anyway, this is just a quick update on immersion in video games, a recurring subject of the blog. Gamasutra recently published a very interesting article on the subject, by Michael Tomsen. If you enjoyed the previous talk about immersion in video games, take a look.

See you space cowboys…

Project Natal: changes and concerns January 10, 2010

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Gamesindustry.biz recently announced Microsoft is dropping the internal chip from Project Natal. Even though there’s some talk about the move being related to making updates easier, it is clearly a move to drop costs. It is understandable, as the device must ship at a reasonable price to succeed.

However, from my previous experiences with computer vision solutions, this might represent a big drawback. Natal is not supposed to be a simple toy, targeting unique, exquisite experiences. It is supposed to act as a reliable replacement for controllers in many ways. Computer vision algorithms, like the ones necessary to process both texture and range data the sensors provide, require significant processing, specially if reliability and response time are big issues (as it is clearly the case).

That means not only old games will not get updates (because there won’t be a processor budget to spare for the vision algorithms), but also that new games using the technology will have to reduce processing somewhere else in order to make the system as responsive and reliable as it has to be.

Not all is lost though and I still have hope. I don’t think Microsoft would make this decision without some confidence most of the appeal will still be there. What I can say is that the presence of the range sensors (as opposed to a simple camera) means a lot of the algorithms can be much simpler than in texture only solutions. Tasks like background subtraction, for example, are almost free when range data is available. And pose detection, be that of the head, hands or the whole body, is also simplified, since the range information makes things less ambiguous.

But there’s also no question a dedicated chip would make the impact bigger and increase the usability of the device. Developers will now have to decide between keeping Natal functionality or improving AI and other gameplay areas.

In a related note, the article also mentions Microsoft is struggling with a 100 ms delay in the system. That’s a very common issue with imaging devices: just turn on your webcam and notice the lag. In a way that’s an even more serious problem than the drop of the chip, since a hardware delay cannot be fixed by software optimization alone, meaning no matter how simple the game is, the delay will still be there. But, again, there’s hope. The fact that it is a well known problem that MS is working to solve means it will probably not be there when Natal is released by the end of the year. Or at least that’s what I hope.

See you space cowboys…

Horribly Slow Murderer. Extremely funny. December 15, 2009

Posted by Cesar in thinking me.
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A light topic for a change.

This is interesting. Richard Gale chose to make the premiere of his latest movie on YouTube hoping to reach a bigger audience, as usually short movies are only watched in festivals and a few theaters. The strategy worked. His “The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon” became an instant internet hit. And so far the IMDb page shows 7 awards, the Richard Gale site mentions 12. I guess the internet release won’t stop him from profiting after all.

Business aside, the short is very good and it is just as funny as it is slow. Which in this case is a big compliment.

See you space cowboys…

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